War of the Worlds: George Pal’s 1953 Film Adaptation

This month, I’m discussing War of the Worlds as it appears in its many adaptations. This time around, we travel back to 1953 for the George Pal-produced film version, starring Gene Barry and Anne Robinson.

A mere fifteen years after Orson Welle’s famous radio adaptation, a Technicolor special effects extravaganza based on H.G. Wells’ original story came to the silver screen. The film was an early effort from producer George Pal, following two solid sci-fi flicks: Destination Moon in 1950 and When Worlds Collide in 1951. Pal would go on to adapt another Wells classic, The Time Machine, in 1960.

Like most other adaptations since the original, this film version of War of the Worlds changes the setting. Setting aside Victorian England for California in then-modern 1953 served to increase the realism and authenticity of the movie. Gene Barry plays Clayton Forrester, a scientist who’s fishing trip is disturbed when a strange meteor crashes to the Earth. A a small town nearby, Forrester meets university librarian Sylvia Van Buren, played by Anne Robinson. Soon, the two are caught up in the Martian invasion, and given the desperate task of finding a way to stop their foes using scientific know-how.

My first encounter with this version of War of the Worlds came after recording it off cable in the mid or late 1980s. I was enthralled with it from beginning to end. I’ve always been a special effects junkie. (I suppose growing up in the Star Wars era has that effect on a kid.) Even though the film was more than three decades old by the time I saw it, I found the visuals stunning. Though there were obvious limitations, the team behind the movie made the most of the tech of the time. Sparking heat rays, flashing green laser beams, and the disintegration effects, especially, were wonderful in the truest sense of the word.

The Martian tripods in this film were different than the metal-legged versions in the book. These Martian craft are similar to flying saucers, with no visual supports at all, but there is one scene where you can see the hint of… something underneath one. Dr. Forrester surmises that the Martian vehicles move on “beams of magnetic force”, which is as good an explanation as any and ties back to the idea of a tripod from the book. The Martians are armed with force fields strong enough to resist the explosion of an atomic bomb. Book purists might complain about these changes, but given America’s weapon capabilities in 1953 compared to those in late 1800s England, it made sense that the Martians would have a few tricks up their sleeves.

The design of the Martian “tripod” is iconic. The swooping curves remind me of a manta ray, and the heat ray stalk is definitely riffing on the hood of a cobra. In fact, the sound the heat ray makes as it swoops around upon its first emergence from the landing pit sounds very much like the warning tail waggle of a rattlesnake. One look at the tripod and you know it is deadly. It’s a great piece of work, and is memorable for anyone who has seen the film.

If I had one beef with the film, it’s the design of the Martians themselves. There is a very creepy scene in the middle of the film where Clayton and Sylvia are hiding out in a farmhouse and a Martian bullet/canister/thing crashes into it. In the wreckage of the house, a periscope (or at least the Martian version of one) spots the pair, and then a Martian comes after them. The scene is very creepy, with short glimpses at the Martian, increasing the tension… and then you see the slightly goofy Martian puppet and the moment is ruined. I get what they were going for here, but seeing the Martian in a lingering full-on shot was a bad idea.

Much more effective is the ending. As the bacteria sicken the Martians, they begin to crash among the ruins of Los Angeles. Clayton and Sylvia approach a broken Martian vehicle when a ramp opens. A feeble, sickly Martian extends its arm, revealing throbbing blood vessels beneath its slick, presumably feverish skin. This is a far better scene! Had the full-body prop been used again, it likely would have ruined the ending. Perhaps the filmmakers realized this, perhaps not, but either way, the lonely Martian’s weakened arm is a very effective way to end the climax.

I still love watching the 1953 movie version of War of the Worlds. Though it’s nearly seventy years old now, the film holds up very well. I am a big fan of the sci-fi films of the 50s, and this is one of the best of that decade’s offerings. The special effects are ground-breaking. The modifications to the story make sense for a film set in the time. The acting is very good, especially for the two leads. There’s not a lot of substance to the characters, but this was typical of the genre, and Barry and Robinson make the most of the script. If you haven’t ever seen this version of the film, it’s worth a look!

Later this week we’ll look at another version of War of the Worlds that is a direct sequel to this film…

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